SATURDAY’S CHILD: Britannia rules
The evil that men do lives after them and so too their laws. This is the case of the British in India.
Ironically, I saw the announcement that India is to repeal nearly 300 obscure laws dating back to the British Raj in a BBC article. It seems that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who took up office earlier this year, has made it one of his priorities to weed out 287 obsolete laws.
One of these laws from 1838 dictates that property in an area of the former imperial capital Calcutta – now called Kolkata – can only be sold to the East India Company, which laid the foundations of the British Empire but ceased to exist more than 150 years ago. Another law that is finally going to be taken off the books is one which makes flying kites or balloons without police permission illegal across India. The reason is that the British classified them as “aircraft”, perhaps because they feared that the impoverished Indians might use them to create their own version of the RAF (Royal Air Force).
Car inspectors in the state of Andhra Pradesh must have a clean set of teeth. I am not sure how many of the inspectors in our Motor Vehicle Inspection group would pass that test. Worse, the British banned anyone with a “pigeon chest, knock knees, flat foot, hammer toes and fractured limbs” from driving. I know a few people who would either have to walk or take the bus.
The same kind of quirky authoritarianism, mixed with heavy doses of spite, is evident in other laws due to be banned, including the India Treasure Trove Act 1878. According to the act, treasure is “anything of any value hidden in the soil” and worth ten rupees or more. The problem is that ten rupees is about 16 US cents or ten-pence. If an Indian finds such treasure, a senior local official, most likely British, must be informed of the “nature and amount or approximate value of such treasure and the place where it was found”. If the finder fails to hand over the booty to the government, the “share of such treasure . . . shall vest in Her Majesty”. The British had enough spies among the Indian population to know if someone found anything of value. The irony is that the British left India in 1947 and reaching Her Majesty in faraway London even through the much-publicised Zoom.com will cost much more than ten-pence.
The British set up railways and post offices – institutions that we in the Caribbean know very well. But they also inflicted laws that were extremely stringent and sometimes inexplicable. The Indian Post Office Act 1898 decrees that only the federal government has the “exclusive privilege of conveying by post, from one place to another”, most letters. One exception is “Letters sent by a private friend in his way, journey or travel, to be delivered by him to the person to whom they are directed, without hire, reward or other profit or advantages for receiving, carrying or delivering them”. Right now the rich Indians who run the country’s booming courier industry, a necessity in the heavy traffic that gridlocks most cities, get around the law by using the English language to their advantage. What they convey and deliver are “documents” not “letters.”
One of the typical British laws that demonstrate their true nature is the Sonthal Parganas Act 1855, which was a mixed blessing to the Sonthal tribespeople. They were exempted from general laws and regulations because they were an “uncivilised race”. No doubt they kept their pinkies firmly on the handle of the cup when having tea.
The irony is that Great Britain is not much better with the laws they imposed on themselves. A law from 1313 decrees that MPs are not allowed to wear armour in parliament. It is still an offence to beat or shake any carpet, rug or mat in any street in the Metropolitan Police District, although you are allowed to shake a doormat before 8 a.m.
It is also illegal to keep a pigsty in front of your house (unless duly hidden), erect a washing line across any street, sing any profane or obscene song or ballad in any street or wilfully and wantonly disturb people by ringing their doorbells or knocking at their doors, permit any servant to stand on the sill of any window to clean or paint it or for the keeper of a place of public resort to permit drunkenness in the house. If we had that in the Caribbean, given the nature of our society – and our police particularly – every rum shop owner in the Caribbean would either be in jail permanently or our police would be richer than they are now.
The British law that truly baffled me is that it is “illegal to eat mute swan unless you’re the Queen of Great Britain”. I learnt that “mute swans” are a rare species of swans that are less vocal than other swans. The problem with enforcing the law is that if someone other than the Queen captures the bird for the purpose of eating it, the poor creature cannot shout for help.
• Tony Deyal was last seen saying that it is illegal to die in the Houses of Parliament and he supposes that if caught all a guy can say is, “Oh Fawkes”.